Recovery is Possible
By Alex Ellen
**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. This post includes references to domestic violence and abuse. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.
When I was 13, I had to quit gymnastics due to an injury. This, combined with hitting puberty, resulted in a little, very normal weight gain. I wanted to get “fit” again, so I began eating what seemed like a very healthy, balanced diet, and exercising more. It seemed like simple maths: less in, more out.
As I started to lose weight, one of my friends said to me, “Don’t go all anorexic on us though.” I never had heard the word “anorexic”… so I asked what it was, and she explained, “Some girls stop eating to lose weight.” And I remember in that exact moment, the feeling of the “penny dropping.” It had never even occurred to me to stop eating, but I thought, Well that would be quicker and easier. And, just like that, I stopped eating.
Very shortly after my mum explained the harm this would do to my body—and I, being a classic people-pleaser, didn’t want her to be upset—I simply went back to eating what I considered healthy. But… the seed had been sown… I knew I could give up food if I wanted to.
A few years went by, along with an increase in the turbulence in my home life, and suddenly at 16 I found myself desperately overwhelmed. I had started my A-levels, my parents’ relationship was deteriorating into full-blown domestic violence and abuse, and I was struggling with my sexuality. I felt lost and acutely self-conscious. I wanted to be perfect… to achieve, but to never be a “problem” or contribute to the issues at home. These feelings were very burdensome and I felt a need to press pause. To simply STOP.
Food, and specifically avoiding it, gave me this opportunity. Because the world started and stopped with calories. Nothing else mattered, and anorexia convinced me that I was very, very good at denying myself even basic sustenance. I prided myself on my “strength of will” and quite literally looked down on everyone who ate (so EVERYBODY). And so began the painful isolation. It was just me and the voice.
This continued for many years. I maintained a very low body weight, got good grades, and held down a job. But underneath the perfectionism I was cracking and so was my family. Everything was amplified. When you are literally starving, even the slightest disturbance feels like sheer panic. Your body is in starvation mode and you cannot function properly; instead, you are trying to survive, on high alert whilst also shutting down. It’s intense and terrifying.
Then I met a therapist, Karen. She saved my life. Without a doubt. She didn’t treat me like a patient. Instead, she appealed to my intellect and naturally scientific mind. She explained the neuroscience behind anorexia. Behind my lack of logical and sound decision-making. She also removed the responsibility of the illness. Instead, she gave me the responsibility of recovery. Anorexia was not my fault, was not me. But choosing to get better, and continuing to choose that every day, that was me. I suddenly felt the power of choice.
This was key for me. Anorexia removes all choice. You don’t have a choice of whether you eat or not, of whether you exercise or not, of whether you lie or not. Anorexia has all the control. So to then be offered, very sincerely, the choice of recovery? I found this so empowering. Because that was mine to make. That doesn’t mean it was easy, but it was mine.
It was a long and very painful journey. I had buried myself under so much self-doubt. I really had no idea who I was without anorexia. But I wanted to find out. I used to tell myself, “Find out who I am without this, because worst case, if I don’t like me, I can starve again.” It gave me a feeling of nothing to lose, so why not just give it a go…
I’ve now been recovered for nearly eight years. And I can absolutely promise that life is better with food in it. It’s harder, because I feel everything. I’m no longer numb to the pain that life brings. But I’m also able to feel the joys that life brings. I’m fit and strong and very self-aware. I’m able to care for myself in such intuitive ways. I view these skills as gifts from anorexia. Anorexia allowed me a place in which to hide and survive when my world felt unbearable. But recovery and food gave me passion and exuberance, in even the smallest of ways. Life literally tastes good.
Recovery is possible. Don’t believe the lies your eating disorder has told you. Because you’re surviving. You’re strong. And you absolutely do have the power in you to thrive. Recovery is waiting, patiently, and when you’re ready, that choice, that powerful part of your wonderful brain, is going to pull you from the depths of despair and you will remember that you—who you are—is not this. You, whoever you are, are ready to flourish. Allow yourself the kindness of choice. Allow yourself the freedom to choose recovery. Know that you are worth saving and you will save yourself.